The Myriad Wonders of Danish Education

Last year, 357 Danish graduates took the EU civil service exam. All 357 of them failed. This* article in the Copenhagen Post comments on the situation, and on why it might have come to pass. Apparently the Danish education system is not teaching people properly.

Forgive me if I’m not surprised. I’ve been complaining about this for ages now. I don’t usually complain in public, because my parents taught me that guests should be polite to their hosts, and we are guests here in Denmark. Instead I keep my trap shut and politely put up with all the self-satisfied commentary on the fallacies of standardized testing and how America’s educational system relies far too heavily on such faulty methods. I even politely agree with them a little, because they do have a point.

I politely refrain from mentioning the fact that Danish schools spend nine solid years preparing students for one final exam which doesn’t even count for a thing, with nothing that even resembles qualifying exams at the end of each year. After this they have three years of gymnasium with exams at the end of each year. Their GPA at the end of these three years decides their entire future.

In other words, after nine years of no real consequences for academic laziness, they are suddenly expected to be responsible, disciplined students. This when they’re teenagers finally being hit by the realization that they don’t have a clue what they want from their lives, and by the panic that comes of seeing that there isn’t much time left to choose.

Furthermore, the last few of those nine years are treated as enormously important despite the fact that they’re really not. Students are expected to care about their studies for no real reason, and because this is the way it’s always been, they do. They stress out completely, especially being unused to discipline, and especially because this happens just as they’re turning thirteen or fourteen, which the whole world knows is not a very disciplined age. By the time they turn sixteen or seventeen and go to gymnasium, they’re exhausted from the unaccustomed stress and ready for a break.

And now, after they’re already tired and (in some cases) disillusioned, their grades are exponentially more important.

As for the evils of standardized testing, at least it is standardized. Danish grades depend entirely on the teacher: I have several friends who have been given terrible grades by the French Teacher from the Black Lagoon. (She’s known school-wide as the worst thing that could happen to you within those walls. Students who have had her, upon hearing you share the same fate, shake their heads in pity and earnestly wish you luck, because luck is just about the only thing that can save you.) There is pretty much nothing they can do about this. It will affect their GPA forever more, which may considerably affect their future. Even with the more human teachers, sometimes a student is simply neglected or overlooked, through no fault of their own and no fault of the teachers but being a bit too distracted to notice everyone. Tests, which Danish teachers rarely use, could at least give such students a chance to shine.

Exams at the end of the year are for only some subjects. If you have an exam in a subject, the grade you get from it will replace whatever grade you might have gotten from the teacher. This is great if you are good at exams; not so much otherwise. I don’t know how the American system works in this regard so I can’t compare, but I’m not sure I like this method so much.

Then there is the question of special attention for those who need it. Danish schools are finally starting to provide special education for those who fall below the average, which is a grand thing. I’ve heard it’s not nearly good enough, but at least it’s progress. There is hope for the future.

However, those who fall below the grade are not the only ones who need help. Some children are quicker to grasp things than their peers, and they sit there in class bored out of their clever little minds as the teacher repeats something for the eighth time. Denmark doesn’t even recognize this as a problem, let alone do anything about it. So you end up with people like Indigo, who is absolutely brilliant but has trouble believing it, or people like Crash, who knows he can get top grades if he tries but is too lazy to do so, because he’s never had to try before.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in America; I’m sure it happens all the time. But when I was in second grade, I took the standardized tests at the end of the year and they showed that I was far, far above average. So I was offered a place in a special program which endeavored to collect as many such kids as possible in one class and keep them together for two years. Fourth and fifth grade were awesome for me, because I actually learned things at a decent pace and was surrounded by interesting people. In middle school they place you in math classes according to your level of proficiency, not your age; in high school you can take AP courses and so on for most classes. Most of my teachers made an effort to provide a challenge for those students who were up to it. They didn’t all succeed, but at least they tried.

Perhaps this is just the story of one lucky kid who lived in a privileged area. But we’re in the capital of Denmark, for pete’s sakes! Not even – we’re in the particularly prosperous city ensconced within the capital of Denmark. They should be able to deal with the possibility of particularly clever students, and the fact that such people are rarely good at motivating themselves, usually because they’ve never really had to before. There are a few teachers who try to cater to the needs of every student in the class, but they are few, and it is not easy for them. Most teachers just try to get everyone through the assigned syllabus. This means they take care with those who might fall behind, but not so much with those who are already miles ahead and waiting impatiently for everyone else to catch up.

I’m sure the evils of standardized testing are manifold. But, ironically, the society that employs it makes at least some attempt to educate those whose needs are not quite average; the Danish society, which scoffs at it so self-righteously, fails to see that not everyone fits the standard.


*The third paragraph in the English version of this article contains a small mistake: ‘unacceptable’ instead of ‘acceptable’.

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